DETROIT — Tigers manager A.J. Hinch could see the question coming like a 3-0 fastball as he sat at the podium for his media session Friday afternoon, before Detroit’s 4-1 loss to the Twins at Comerica Park.
“I know it’s June. I know there’s 162,” the question started.
“But…” Hinch interrupted, sensing what would follow.
“You have young players who have never really faced this kind of feeling,“ the question continued.
“What feeling are you referencing?” Hinch interrupted again.
“That you can actually compete or contend.”
Then came the reference to standings, which Hinch anticipated like a former catcher readying for a breaking ball in the dirt. He got a similar question when the Tigers were closer to .500 around Memorial Day weekend. And much like catchers and breaking balls, he pounced on the opportunity to repeat what he called his rant about standings.
“I think what a team needs to feel is that every game matters,” Hinch said, “and every game, there’s an incentive in general. It’s our job. When there’s something extra, when you’re playing competitively, when you’re in the mix — which I’ll grant you, in the mix — that’s super important for young players to feel that at this level, it’s not about survival, it’s about winning today’s game. And the more games you can [win], the more you’re going to factor in. But that’s about the extent of it.
“I’m just not going to let our team talk [about contending or the standings]. I haven’t heard those words. … I don’t want to hear it, because I think we have so much more to do to get better before we can truthfully talk like that. We haven’t earned the right to talk that way. We just haven’t.”
The Tigers entered Friday within 4 1/2 games of the Twins in the American League Central. On the other hand, Friday’s loss dropped Detroit 10 games under .500, while lifting the Twins back over .500. Such is the nature of this division this year.
Hinch has always emphasized focus on the game at hand. Win today’s game, he has repeated as a mantra.
Instead of thinking about the division race, Hinch wanted players thinking about how to hit Kenta Maeda, or how to contain a dangerous Twins offense. He doesn’t want a feel-good story about a team simply outplaying expectations and lingering.
“You want to get somewhere where you matter and you want to get on national broadcasts? You want to get into the conversation where people don’t look at us like, pat us on the head, we’re a nice team that’s trying hard? Like, play better. Play better for a long time, beat some teams, and then you’ll start to earn that designation. Until then, it’s all a distraction.
“And so, I think for a young team to feel like the game matters maybe a tick more, of course, super important. If that takes away anything from, ‘How am I going to lay off this slider-split combo that Maeda’s going to throw? How are we going to get to their starters before we get to their bullpen, which was nasty last weekend?’ We’ve got our hands full, man, before we worry about too much of [standings].”
Maeda’s arsenal made that a tough task in his return from the injured list for his first start since late April. He threw just 21 fastballs out of 83 pitches, attacking Tigers hitters with more sliders and splitters. Detroit struggled to adjust, taking seven sliders for called strikes while swinging and missing at five splitters on the way to three singles over his five innings.
On the flip side, Joey Wentz — whose 6 1/3 quality innings and nine strikeouts in Minnesota last Saturday looked like a breakthrough — struggled with his curveball and changeup and paid for it with two second-inning home runs before leaving the game with the bases loaded and nobody out in the sixth. Brendan White allowed only one runner to score, and that was on a wild pitch, but the lead was set for Minnesota’s bullpen. Seven of Detroit’s final 10 batters struck out against three relievers, leaving the Tigers with a season-high 16 strikeouts.
For a manager who has preached control of the strike zone, that number is his bigger concern, not the gap in the standings. They’ll get two more chances at Minnesota this weekend before a dangerous road trip to Texas and Colorado. Ironically after Hinch’s pregame comments, Saturday will be a semi-national broadcast on FOX.